I was in Paris with my family in 1997, when tragedy struck very near us.
Arriving there from New York, on our way to the South of France, we stayed one night at the Ritz Hotel, my husband and I and our two daughters.
The next morning we took a flight to Nice – we had rented a house near Mougins, a picturesque village away from it all. Our days there were long and sunny and relaxed, and when we were not at the beach in nearby Cannes we were touring the region in no hurry.
Going to the local market everyday, I would glance at newspapers showing pictures of princess Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed, on vacation nearby. She looked great diving off their boat anchored near Saint Tropez, her body in perfect shape. But her eyes were sad, I thought.
After 10 days our vacation was over; we left Mougins early and would spend one more night in Paris, before catching our flight to New York the next morning. This time the Ritz was booked solid, we stayed instead at Hotel Powers, a comfortable 4-star hotel we knew. Our Colombian babysitter Tatiana was with us then, and at night we all went out to dinner at Ma Bourgogne, on Place des Vosges, a bistro a friend had recommended.
Ma Bourgogne was a typical Paris bistro, with a beautiful view of Place des Vosges. But we were all tired from the trip to really appreciate it, and by 11:00 PM the kids were sleepy and wanted to go to bed. We all got in a cab back to the hotel, passing the Pont d’Alma tunnel on the way. One hour later, a car carrying Princess Diana would crash right there, causing her death.
We only learned about it the next morning: Tatiana had been out before us, and came back agitated, almost in tears: “Princess Diana died near here last night”, she said. I remember the silence that fell upon us, even the kids said nothing.
Same strange silence later, in the hotel lobby, when we checked out – no one was saying more than necessary, a very eerie feeling. The heavy silence stayed with us in the taxi, going to the airport; it felt like the whole Paris was in mourning, the air still, even the driver said close to nothing. My ten year old daughter commented on how quiet things were, and asked about Princess Diana’s death. I replied with something like “she was a beautiful person and died in the most beautiful city”. But that was it, I felt drained of energy.
We got to a Charles de Gaulle Airport crowded with security guards, at the same moment Prince Charles’ Royal Air Force jet was landing to claim Diana’s body. I felt a strange sadness – after all I din’t know Diana personally – and thought that if we had stayed at the Ritz, where Diane and Al Fayed slept the night before, we would have been near her again, like in the South of France. I am glad we didn’t, or the whole thing would have felt even more weird. We returned home in New York still in a state of shock, still not talking about it.
The days that followed were almost unreal – her poignant funeral, her sad kids parading behind her coffin, the feeling that Diana left too early. Some people capture our imagination more than others, and I think she was one. Diana had something different, something hard to describe – she was real.
A long time after that, I learned that the young French woman who, with her doctor boyfriend, got to Diana’s car crash site before anybody else, was the daughter of a French friend of mine who had been my guest in New York, years before. Small world!
Each time I return to the Marais in Paris, or eat at Ma Bourgogne, or drive through the Pont d’Alma tunnel again, I remember the night Diana died.